For all the talk of the Fire’s possession problems, you wouldn’t have known it in the first 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s game in Toronto. The Alex/Jeff Larentowicz partnership hummed along like it did during the squad’s hottest streak this year, a fresh looking Patrick Nyarko did his havoc-creating thing, and it all culminated with a deserved goal.
Of course, at the final whistle it was obviously a shame they didn’t get one or two more during that period. But that’s what this Fire does. They pull off the tough results and tend to drop the seemingly easier ones. Even on short rest, away from home (where they’ve struggled all year), Toronto was the perfect opponent.
And in the first 20 minutes, the Fire pretty much had their way with the ball and the field, pressing hard to win it up field, running off each other -- it was yummy. It’s hard to pick one sequence but there was one down the right side in the 15th minute I loved. The Fire won the ball and played a couple fast one-touch passes before Nyarko just missed Chris Rolfe, wide open past midfield. It didn’t come off, but just look at the wide open spaces in TFC’s team shape.
TFC started bad. Really bad. They misplaced more balls than a dog with amnesia and the Fire took all the space they wanted. It was a veritable buffet for Rolfe, Dilly Duka, and Mike Magee, enjoying constant service from midfield as well as the enterprising Gonzalo Segares.
TFC’s goal shouldn’t have been the last goal of the game but it was and thankfully other results held up so the Fire are still in perfectly okay position for the playoffs. They need to pick up points down the stretch, yeah, but they’re all of one point out of fifth with seven games to play. I still don’t understand the doomsayers calling the season off already.
If the 14th minute, free-flowing Fire example showed everything this team can be when it flows right, Quincy Amarikwa’s 78th minute chance showed what’s sometimes dispiriting about them. They let points get away from them.
Off a TFC attack, Magee got the ball in his own half and turned through the midfield to play Rolfe, who spotted Amirakwa’s dash inside. It was a great run because he timed it later than Juan Luis Anangono’s, which was a bit too early so his defender could recover before Pause pushed close enough to goal.
Amarikwa’s run came directly in front of his defender, giving Pause the angle and target he needed, and Quincy was in. He had the choice of laying off for Anangono, who was beyond the goalie and just a simple touch away from giving the Fire the lead, but he went himself. Against his own team, in on goal, Amarikwa went himself and shot right at TFC keeper Joe Bendik. Anangono (and Fire fans) were furious.
It’s not outrageous for a striker in that position to go himself; actually, it’s probably the right thing to do versus risk an extra pass. But it was a moment the Fire couldn’t quite grasp, the kind of moment they’ll need to in the next seven games if they’re to keep their season going into the playoffs.
After missing yet another opportunity to jump into the Playoff spots after a disappointing draw in Toronto midweek, the Fire head back to Toyota Park on Saturday to face the team they are trying to catch, the New England Revolution (LIVE 7pm CT on My50). The Revs occupy the fifth and final Playoff spot and will be looking to put some distance between themselves and the chasing pack. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective:
Tracking Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez – monitoring the Revs playmakers movement
Both Rowe and Fagundez are having fantastic seasons for New England despite their young age. For an 18 year old, Fagundez has a real eye for goal and a knack of getting into very good positions in the box. Many of his goals this season have been tap-ins, with the Uruguayan being in the right spot at the right time.
Rowe on the other hand likes to operate outside the box and is excellent at picking up the ball in the space between the midfield and the back line. In New England’s last two matches against Toronto and Montreal, Rowe was allowed too much space to pick up the ball in these positions. From there, he is equally comfortable shooting from distance or running at defenders. He displayed both in the matches against the Impact and TFC.
To stop Rowe, the communication and decision making by the Fire’s midfielders and defenders is very important. Defenders such as Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry must come out and close down Rowe as quickly as possible when he picks up the ball in that position. As for Fagundez, tracking his runs into the box will also be crucial.
Concentrating on team defense – cutting out individual errors and defending better as a team
In the Fire’s last few matches, individual errors and lack of concentration have been the team’s downfall. On Wednesday night, a piece of nonchalant defending led to TFC’s tying goal while multiple players were guilty of not tracking their runners in the matches against Seattle and Houston.
Individual errors have plagued Fire defenders this season while the wingers are the culprits responsible for sometimes failing to follow their marks. As a defensive unit, the players must be focused for the entire 90 minutes, especially now because there is little room for error if the Men in Red are to make the Playoffs. Against a team with such fluid attacking play and movement as New England, lapses in concentration like these will be punished.
Getting in 1v1 situations with A.J. Soares – Fire attack must try and isolate the Revs defender
In New England’s last match against Montreal, something that struck me was the ease in which Impact striker Marco Di Vaio was able to score both of his goals. Both goals were very similar, with the Italian receiving the ball in the box and going 1v1 with Soares before making a cut, losing the Revs defender and finishing with ease.
Don’t get me wrong, Di Vaio is a brilliant striker but his ability to beat players 1v1 is not his strong point, his deadly finishing is. As we have seen this season, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee are not afraid to run at defenders and Quincy Amarikwa showed on Wednesday in Toronto that his pace coming off the bench can cause any defense problems.
Against New England this weekend, I would like to see the Fire strikers take on Soares if they find themselves in a position to.
Prediction: The Fire take the frustrations of the past few weeks out on the Revs and comfortably win 3-1 with goals from Magee (2) and Patrick Nyarko.
Select shots from the Fire's draw with TFC.
CREDIT: USA Today Sports Images
After dropping points late for the second week in a row, the Fire head north to Toronto to play their game in hand against TFC Wednesday night knowing that a win would springboard the Club into a Playoff position (6:30pm CT on My50). TFC were also beaten in the Pacific Northwest last weekend, 4-0 by Portland. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Controlling possession while being wary of TFC’s high pressure
In recent matches, TFC have focused on pressuring their opponent high up the field in an attempt to turn the ball over and/or force the team to play long ball or go back to the goalkeeper. This tactic can work very well but it also has the result of drawing your players out of position in an attempt to put pressure on the opponent.
Last week New England showed the most effective way of countering that tactic, namely by playing neat, one touch soccer and playing through the pressure. When looking at the possession stats, the Fire aren’t one of the most dominant teams in that category, averaging 43% over their past three games but against a team like Toronto, this can be rectified.
The Men in Red certainly possess players comfortable playing a one touch, possession brand of soccer and must not be forced into giving the ball away needlessly or kicking the ball long due to the pressure by the TFC attacking players.
I look for the team not to be wasteful in possession on Wednesday night and to play themselves out of pressure whenever possible.
Changes in the attack? Injuries may force a shakeup on Wednesday night
WATCH: Larentowicz, Nyarko preview TFC
With top goal scorer and talisman Mike Magee subbed off at halftime as an injury precaution and the team playing
two games this week, it remains to be seen whether he will go the full 90 tonight in Toronto. With this in mind, Fire coach Frank Klopas has a number of ways he can tinker the side.
One obvious choice would be to bring in Juan Luis Anangono in attack as a direct replacement for Magee, while Patrick Nyarko and Quincy Amarikwa can also play in the forward role. A second and more likely option would be to see Nyarko come in on the wing and Alex play up front with Chris Rolfe.
As Kevin Egan pointed out in the latest edition of “The Centerback,” the front four of Alex, Rolfe, Magee and Duka combined extremely well against Seattle and bringing another pacey player like Nyarko into the mix makes sense.
Toronto’s defenders are not the fastest, and the movement and speed of the New England and Portland attacking players caused TFC a lot of problems in the last two matches. If Magee is not deemed fit enough to start, who better to bring on later in the game if the Fire need to bag a winner than the second top goal scorer in MLS this season?
Keeping an eye on Reggie Lambe – a powerful wide player
Though statistically Reggie Lambe isn’t having the best of years for Toronto, he has played well in TFC’s last few matches and will be a threat on Wednesday evening.
In TFC’s recent tie with D.C., Lambe switched wings with Bobby Convey and the move worked, crossing for Convey who finished neatly for TFC's lone goal in that match.
In TFC’s last home game against New England, the Canadians started with only Robert Earnshaw up front, but Lambe often drifted inside to support the striker. Lambe also plays a part in TFC’s high pressure style of play, trying to close down the opposition as quickly as possible when they have the ball.
WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner
It is important that the Fire neutralize Lambe and limit the amount of crosses he is able to send into the box for players like Earnshaw and Andrew Wiedeman.
Prediction: The Fire get what they came to Toronto looking for: 3 points with a 2 nil victory. Goals from Patrick Nyarko and Gonzalo Segares.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Saturday night didn’t feel good. A strong Fire performance in always difficult atmosphere at Century Link Field certainly left me feeling like the team had done enough to take something away from Seattle. In the end, that wasn’t to be.
With the 2-1 loss, Fire hearts looked at three very big matches Sunday involving Houston, New England and Philadelphia, maybe lit a candle, said a prayer or crossed fingers. That sound you heard round about midnight was a huge sigh of relief as all three teams immediately ahead of the Men in Red in the Eastern Conference playoff race also went down in defeat.
Hence this blog title, as the positioning between the Top 7 in the East remains the same as it was when I wrote the first edition of 2013 Playoff Math two weeks ago, albeit with a bit of a separation between top and bottom.
A breakdown of where things stand heading into this week…
1) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 45 (13-7-6)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home/ 4 away)
Last 5 Games: WDWWL (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-1-3 / 4-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 69
Average Opponents Pts: 35.3
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 vs. CLB, 9/17 at SJ**, 9/21 vs. VAN, 9/24 vs. HER** 9/28 @ CHI, 10/4 @ HOU, 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC
Rundown: Chronologically, Montreal’s 4-1 win at New England was the second of three needed Fire results Sunday and though the Impact had only won once away to an Eastern opponent this season, showed up in droves early on as Matt Reis’ fifth minute red card for taking down Marco Di Vaio set the tone for the evening in Montreal’s 4-2 win.
With the win, the Impact stayed on top of the Eastern Conference (with two games in hand) and may have helped the Fire more than just in the standings as Reis will now be suspended for the Revolution’s visit to Chicago this Saturday.
Given Montreal’s home form, a visit from the Crew Saturday should probably see them atop the East by the time I’m writing this column next week. With games in hand on both New York and Sporting KC, the Impact hold the inside track to the top spot in the East if they can hold serve down the stretch.
2) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: WWLDL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-2-3 / 5-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 36.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 vs. TFC, 9/22 vs. FCD, 9/29 @ SEA, 10/5 vs. NE, 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI
Rundown: The fact that Red Bull had never won in Houston during the MLS regular season didn’t exactly bode well form them on Sunday but a smaller than normal crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium saw a few mistakes at the back which New York did well to capitalize on in their 4-1 win.
Red Bull have just six games left to play with the next two at home vs. Toronto FC and FC Dallas. Wins in those and we’re either talking about them officially clinching a playoff spot or being having the opportunity to do it in Seattle on October 5.
3) Sporting KC
Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (2 home / 4 away)
Last 5: WWLLW (9pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-4-3 / 5-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 30.5
Remaining Schedule: 9/17 vs. RES**, 9/21 @ TFC, 9/27 vs. PHI, 10/5 @ CLB, 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI
Rundown: Sporting KC go into their bye week coming off a strong 3-0 home win over Columbus Saturday night. Like Montreal, they’ve set themselves up well now to balance their remaining Champions League fixtures (they next play Real Esteli on September 17) and could lock down a playoff spot by the end of September.
4) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 39 (10-9-9)
Games Remaining: 6 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LDLDW (5pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-3-5 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 57
Average Opponents Pts: 34.7
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 vs. HOU, 9/27 @ SKC, 10/5 vs. TFC, 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC
Rundown: Despite having a man advantage for the final 33 minutes, Philadelphia was unable to muster a point in a 1-0 defeat at San Jose in the Fire’s last needed result of the night.
Philadelphia still sits fourth but only by two points ahead of Saturday’s game vs. Houston, one of two very big matches with playoff implications this week.
5) New England Revolution
Current Points: 37 (10-10-7)
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LDWWL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-5-3 / 4-5-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 33.4
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 @ CHI, 9/21 vs. D.C., 9/28 vs. HOU, 10/5 @ NY, 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB
Rundown: Like I said above, New England’s 4-2 loss to Montreal helped contribute to everything staying the same towards the bottom of the race. They’ll be without starting goalkeeper Matt Reis in Saturday’s pivotal visit to Toyota Park but will still likely come in confident knowing they’ve won the previous two encounters between the sides this year.
6) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 37 (10-9-7)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LDLWL (4pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-3-3 / 3-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 35.7
Remaining Schedule:9/14 @ PHI, 9/21, 9/25 vs. WC**, vs. CHV, 9/28 @ NE, 10/4 vs. MTL, 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.
Rundown: It wasn’t a good week for Houston who dropped a 2-0 to Columbus at midweek before Sunday’s 4-1 thumping vs. New York. Given Houston’s recent form (4 points from their last five games), Fire fans will lament the two points dropped to the Dynamo at the beginning of the month but should also be thankful for the fact the Dynamo have continued to struggle following that result.
A loss at Philadelphia next Saturday combined with a win from the Fire or New England may be panic button time for the Dynamo.
7) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 35 (10-11-5)
Games Remaining: 8 (3 home / 5 away)
Last 5 Games: LDWLW (7pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 8-4-2 / 2-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 59
Average Opponents Pts: 32.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/11 @ TFC, 9/14 vs. NE, 9/21 @ CLB, 9/28 vs. MTL, 10/4 @ D.C., 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY
Rundown: Dropping three points late in the last two matches doesn’t fill one with confidence but the team’s performance at Seattle was very encouraging and they were perhaps rewarded by Sunday’s trifecta of results. In reality, the weekend was a complete wash in terms of Playoff Math, so the Fire enter a two-game week with a huge opportunity.
The team faces a quick turnaround Wednesday, playing their game in hand on New England and Houston when they visit lowly Toronto FC (who fell 4-0 at Portland Saturday). A win in Ontario followed by one in Saturday’s six-pointer vs. the Revs (and a draw between the Union in Dynamo in Philadelphia) would actually put the Fire into fourth place in the East with six games remaining.
It’s fair to admit no one saw the Fire being in this position following Saturday's game but as they say, that’s why they play the games and there’s all to play for still.
8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 32 (9-14-5)
Games Remaining: 8 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LWLLW (6pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 6-5-3 / 3-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 50
Average Opponents Pts: 38.6
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 @ MTL, 9/21 vs. CHI, 9/29 @ FCD, 10/5 vs. SKC, 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE
Rundown: In Brian Bliss’ first game as interim head coach, Columbus took a huge step defeating Houston 2-0 last Wednesday only to fall 3-0 at KC Saturday night.
By virtue of their point total and remaining schedule, the Crew are certainly still in the playoff race but are at a point where any further slip-ups will probably mean the end to their season.
Select shots from the Fire's 2-1 loss to Seattle.
SOURCE: USA Today Sports Images
The MLS Team Writers Union continues to grow and so I thought, why not reach out and get my counterpart's takes on relevant questions surrounding their team in the leadup to matches...
In today's Three Questions, I go old school with one of the longest tenured Team Writers in MLS (and doppelganger match for Rob Riggle), Sounders FC's Matt Gaschk...
Jeff Crandall: With Wednesday night's victory over Chivas USA, the Sounders continue to be the hottest team in MLS having won six of their last seven matches. What has been the main contribution to the recent success?
Matt Gaschk: The greatest difference over the last seven matches has been the commitment on the defensive side of the ball. With four shutouts in the last seven matches, the defense has jumped to tops in the West, allowing just 1.04 goals per game, but it has been much more than just the back four. The defensive spark has come from all over the field and the team finally seems to have clicked into place and pulling in the same direction.
With so many changes to the roster over the off-season, it took a lot of time for people to find their roles. Now, even though they have yet to play at full strength, they have been able to find different ways to win games because the core of the team has kept them on the right path.
JC: How much do the international absences of Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and the injury to Brad Evans effect Seattle's chances for three points on Saturday?
MG: Dempsey has been a tremendous boost for the team – both on the field and in the locker room, where he has helped re-energize a group that was already driven to succeed. However, his addition has been a boost to what was already a solid team, so while losing him means less talent on the field, it doesn’t necessarily mean a loss in the team dynamic.
Johnson has been on fire of late with three goals and one assist in his last four matches, and he has proven to be highly important to Seattle’s success. When he is engaged, he is among the more lethal finishers in the league.
The loss of Evans, if he is unable to play, takes greater effect when Seattle loses its depth. He can play so many different roles for the team, not the least of which is as a coach on the field, that when he is available it is almost as though Sigi Schmid’s roster has additional players on it.
Servando Carrasco has filled in in the middle of midfield and Marc Burch has provided cover on the left side, so there are players available to fill roles, but it is the depth beyond those spots that has thinned with injuries to Shalrie Joseph and Steve Zakuani.
JC: Obafemi Martins has been out for nearly a month with an ankle injury but seems to be on the comeback trail. What has the Nigerian DP added for the Sounders this season and is there a chance he returns Saturday?
MG: After the 2012 season, Sounders FC ownership vowed to find their Robbie Keane. They sought a player with high levels of European success who is still driven to succeed at a high level when presented with the new challenge of playing in MLS. Martins fit that bill and, while he may not be on the MVP-caliber scoring clip that Keane has seen this season, he has provided a world-class striker that not only scores his own remarkable goals, but also creates space for his teammates to find the scoreboard as well.
Although he has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, his seven goals and three assists in just 15 appearances have been an offensive boost. He has yet to take the field with Dempsey – and won’t this weekend while Dempsey is away on international duty – but when he does, it will make for one of the strongest attacks in MLS.
After leaving two points on the field last Sunday, the Fire head to the Pacific Northwest, traditionally not a happy hunting ground of the Men in Red, for a Saturday night matchup with Seattle (9pm CT on NBCSN) . The Sounders are hitting form at the right time, surging to six wins in their last seven matches. Here are some things to keep an eye out for from a tactical perspective.
Taking advantage of speed – hitting Seattle on the counter attack
The Fire’s bread and butter in away matches is the counter attack, lulling teams into a false sense of security and allowing them to push men forward before forcing a turnover and countering with numbers. A number of factors contribute to this.
In midfield, the likes of Jeff Larentowicz, Arevalo Rios, Alex, Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini are very capable of forcing turnovers by applying pressure or reading the game and intercepting passes. With Rios away on international duty, Alex, Pause and Paladini will battle it out for the central midfield berth.
Alex is equally capable playing on the outside, and with him, Nyarko and Dilly Duka, the Fire have ample speed for to push the break. In attack, I expect the Fire to stick with Rolfe and Magee again due to their quickness.
Juan Luis Anangono is also an option but if the Fire go with the counter attack strategy, there is no need to a target striker in the starting eleven.
Taking advantage of set pieces – punishing Seattle on free kicks and corners
WATCH: Anibaba, Segares talk Saturday's match
In Seattle’s last three or so matches the Sounders have been very sloppy defending set pieces. In the second half of last Wednesday’s match against Chivas in particular, the LA team could have easily scored two or even three goals from free kicks, but for some better finishing.
The Fire worked quite a bit on set pieces at training on Thursday, clearly seeing Seattle’s obvious issues in that area. The Men in Red scored their first goal from a corner in last week’s match against Houston, and with Magee and Duka putting balls in and players like Austin Berry and Larentowicz challenging in the box, the Fire certainly have the ability to cause the Sounders more problems in this area.
Keeping an eye on Rosales and Yedlin – set pieces and crosses from wide
Seattle are a similar team to Sporting KC with both teams having a very dangerous creative midfielder, as well as outside defenders that like to get forward and get crosses in the box.
Though he hasn’t started every match for the team Mauro Rosales leads the Sounders with seven assists, two more than American Brad Evans. Rosales’ favorite target to look for from set pieces and crosses has been Eddie Johnson, picking the American out for a number of headed goals in recent matches. Johnson will also be missing on Saturday but Rosales has a plethora of other players to look for.
Rosales also has the rare ability to put dangerous balls into the box from deep positions, especially on free kicks. Seattle’s Homegrown defender Deandre Yedlin has had an absolutely stellar rookie year, even being named to the MLS All-Star team. He combines well on the right with another missing player for Seattle, Brad Evans.
Without him, Yedlin will be required to pick up the slack. As with the Kansas City match, the Fire players must not pay too much attention to Rosales and neglect Yedlin because if he is given time and space, it could be costly.
Prediction: Mike Magee gets back on track and the Fire win 1-0.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.